Lost Highway

Lost Highway ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Part of Dastardly Difficult December: film nr.88

Every work of literary fiction can be analyzed on three basic levels:
- the level of the story/plot
- the level of the reader
- the level of the author
More often than not it doesn't go beyond the first two levels, i.e. what is the story and what is it trying to say, if anything? And what does it mean to me as a reader? What do I take from it?
Only the truly great novels have that third level, the level on which the author either subtly or overtly makes you aware of his presence. This can be done in the guise of an omniscient narrator or more subtle, through language, a careful and deliberate choice of words that raise a kind of meta awareness in the reader that they are being manipulated on a level deeper than the plot.

Films mainly work on the first two levels as well. But as with literature, there are a few directors who work on all three levels. Perhaps the most consistent of them is David Lynch. He is always present in his films, always making us aware that he is pushing the buttons, deciding what to show where, his language the full extent of the cinematic medium.

Lost Highway is no exception. It is an elusive film that leaves great gaps to be filled in by our own subconciousness. And that is what makes it such a tough watch and an intellectually stimulating piece of art. That this is a unique masterpiece that pushes the boundaries of the entire medium, of that I have no doubt. After seeing it for the first time, I always promised myself I would rewatch this when I was older as I clearly wasn't ready to appreciate the full breadth of what I was watching. This rewatch most certainly made more sense as I was more aware of that third level. So this not so much a review as more my feeble attempt at analyzing this enigmatic piece of cinema artistry.

The Story
Essentially the story is rather simple to summarize. It is a loop in which two seemingly disconnected narratives end up being two strands of the same tale. On the one hand there is Bill Pullman's Jazz musician with adulterous wife who receives videotapes on which he sees his house and subsequently he sees himself murdering his wife. After this discovery, it seems he actually has killed his wife and is sentenced to death.
The other strand deals with Balthazar Getty's mechanic. He is a simple kid that is very good at his job and is the favourite mechanic of hardened criminal Mr. Eddy. He eventually falls for Mr. Eddy's girl, with disastrous consequences that involve him accidentally murdering someone.
When read separately these stories are rather simple. The first one being a horror story, the second a noir thriller. What makes the narrative so unique is the way they are connected. We are asked to believe in the fact that halfway through Pullman's character, while on death row, changes into Getty's character. Furthermore, in Getty's storyline, the femme fatale is played by Arquette, who also plays Pullman's wife in the first segment.

This story does not follow Hollywood doctrine, it in fact does not seem to follow any rules at all, other than Lynch's. No clear goals are achieved by the characters, no explanations are given and the only thing we are meant to rely on here in interpreting this is our own subconsciousness that needs to fill in the blanks. Lynch leaves intentional gaps of information. In traditional storytelling we are used to know as much as or more than the characters we see/read. In Lost Highway we are constantly at a disadvantage as most characters seem to know more than we do and when they don't, Lynch does not allow them and us to know exactly what is going on. What this does on a story level is keep us intrigued. It is a masterfully written narrative as it at points seems to lull us into a false sense of security before it sweeps the rug from under us again and raises yet another set of questions. To do that, without making the audience lose interest or disengage because of frustration is an astonishing feat.

The Creator
Lynch is constantly present in this film. I read somewhere that he doesn't like the spoken word all that much and that is certainly apparent in the first segment. There are hardly any lines and those that are spoken are mere whispers. There is a constant presence of sound, however. The entire segment is accompanied by a low hum, reminiscent of the sound effects in Eraserhead. It, at a certain point, becomes so oppressive, we as an audience almost merge with the increasingly fractured state of mind of Pullman. This can only be achieved because of the subtle manipulation by Lynch. But where Lynch is perhaps most present is in what he doesn't show us. This almost feels like a selective stream of consciousness, with Lynch deciding when to open the tap and when to close it. It is because of his choices this film is what it is and creates the unique effect of a disconnect between what we know is consciously real and what we subconsciously interpret. We see and understand the fact that we are watching human beings interact, but the holes Lynch punches force us to interject ourselves into the piece to make it understandable, to give it meaning. And that makes watching this film a unique experience. This can only be achieved by someone who understands art, someone who knows that the experience is more important that the resolution. It is all about what you take from it in the spaces that the artist doesn't give you anything.

So what's it all about? Does it make any sense? Well, actually it does. At least, I have found something in it you may very well find nonsense. Or not. That is the beauty of it. If you look at the story and the factual simplicity of it, you need to ask yourself why some things don't make sense. The easiest culprits there are of course The Mystery Man and the metamorphis. I think the Mystery Man is rather easily explained away. It is a figment of Pullman's increasingly distraught mind. He is suspicious of his wife, thinks she is having an affair, is hearing and seeing things. His senses, all of them, seem to be leaving him. When he first meets the Mystery Man at a party, all sound drowns out apart from the conversation. This is a clear indicator that this is an internal monologue. It is his 'evil side' the side that spurs him on to do bad things.
He in fact kills his wife. Now, where it gets difficult is in the metamorphosis. The way I see it is that it is a metaphysical change, one that occurs in his head, somewhere on the road between heaven and hell. We have entered the delusional mind of a man with a fractured conscience. The circle he has created, he creates in his mind, or, on a more metaphysical level, in Limbo. It is a prison of his own making, from which he desperately tries to get away in any way and, literally any shape that he can. Does this change actually happen? I'm sure it does. In his mind and therefore in our minds as well. We are, after all, fellow travellers on his lost highway.
Lynch hints a lot at layers of awareness hidden behind veils of reality and behind, a recurring theme in his work, the red theatre curtain. It is present here in Pullman's home and it seems to represent his gateway to his own darker side, a physical manifestation of the boundaries that keep us in check. The moment Pullman's character crosses over he is lost, lost within the purgatory of his own mind, always clinging to lost desires (in the guise of his wife's 'twin'), always looking for an escape (the recurring highway), always trying to lose himself by running away from his own crisis. And that last thing is what the end represents to me, it seems to hint at his final change, his real crossover to, who knows, some sort of afterlife. To me it felt like he died at the end. Who knows, maybe it all takes place a split second before the switch of the electric chair is flipped.

Trying to answer all question this piece of art has in it is impossible and is something you should not attempt to do anyway as it just doesn't seem to be Lynch's intention for us to do that. Heck, I'm not even sure he asks a question. What I am sure of is that this is a unique creation, open to multiple interpretations, all right and wrong at the same time. Much like the film's protagonist.

Edit made by my subconsciousness while sleeping
It seems that Lynch also comments on the fallacy of human memory. A lot of the things that happen seem to come from lives half remembered. What are those videotapes? They seem to be a metaphysical representation of Pullman's repressed memories. This adds to my feeling that what we are watching is a visualization of a man struggling to come to terms with what he has done, while being confronted with the fragility of his own mind. Who knows, maybe Getty is in fact Pullman at an earlier stage in his life, his story half forgotten memories mixed with a search for a causal connection as to why he did what he did and explain away the place he is in now.

And now I hope Lost Highway will leave me alone for a while...

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